Boeing studies 747 Dreamlifter 'combi' modification

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Boeing has a long-term aim to adapt its Boeing 747 Large Cargo Freighter 'Dreamlifters' as a 'combi' to allow the aircraft to transport small groups of personnel in the nose section.

This would enable the outsize freighter to carry up to 16 passengers on flights operating between the 787 production plants in support of the subassembly transport process.

The airframer's fleet of four 747-400 Large Cargo Freighters does not have approval to fly with any supernumerary crew, meaning that it can only operate with up to four aircrew on board.

A revision to the LCF's certification to allow non-aircrew to be carried is planned as the first stage of a process that could eventually lead to a small passenger cabin being installed at the front of the main deck, which is currently empty, says Boeing's vice-president for supplier management Bob Noble.

"With 16 seats in the nose, we'd have our own daily direct flight to Nagoya - on the airlines you have to go through Tokyo," he says.

The Japanese-produced 787 subassemblies are manufactured in Nagoya and then transported to either Charleston, South Carolina - for the fuselage and wing box - or Everett, for the wings, for completion of the 787's assembly and build process.

Speaking at Alenia Aeronautica's 787 production plant in Grottaglie, Noble said that the LCF's certification restrictions are "very, very strict", limiting its payload to just 787 tools and assemblies.

Approval to carry supernumerary passengers on jumpseats in the cockpit should be fairly straightforward, says Noble: "There's nothing we have to do to the airplane, it's just paperwork with the FAA." However the LCFs would require significant alterations to be certificated for passengers on the maindeck, says Noble. "We currently don't have any fire-suppression in the payload bay. Before every flight we have to run a 'SMOT' [safe mode of transport] check."

Another complication would be the need to install and certificate a 16-seat economy cabin and all the associated passenger amenities such as baggage storage, service units and signage. Modifications would also be needed to existing equipment in this area. The fact that there are few 747s operated with non-premium cabins in the nose also makes acquiring an off-the-shelf solution problematic, says Noble.

Although the four 747-400s had their cabin interior equipment stripped out during conversion to LCF, the passenger windows in the forward fuselage were retained. Cargo containment is achieved by a "solid sheet aluminium bulkhead" at the front of the freight bay which Noble estimates is capable of sustaining 16g impacts. The belly cargo hold is also not currently used, although it is planned to be activated in the future.

The LCF passenger cabin modification is no more than a study at the moment, says Noble, who estimates that it is likely to take at least five years to become a reality if the decision is taken to go ahead.